Retiring FAA chief talks possible 'end game' for O'Hare rotation

  • The debate over jet noise continues as another runway rotation at O'Hare begins.

      The debate over jet noise continues as another runway rotation at O'Hare begins. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, June 2016

  • Barry Cooper, the outgoing FAA regional administrator for the Great Lakes Region, talks about O'Hare International Airport in an exit interview.

      Barry Cooper, the outgoing FAA regional administrator for the Great Lakes Region, talks about O'Hare International Airport in an exit interview. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

Posted7/31/2017 5:30 AM

As Chicago rolls out another overnight runway rotation test at O'Hare International Airport, some suburbanites will curse the skies at unexpected jet noise while others get much-needed shut-eye.

The third runway rotation that started July 23 is familiar now to folks living near O'Hare. But departing FAA executive Barry Cooper says it's a game-changing idea that's getting national attention.


After Chicago trotted out its first rotation experiment in summer 2016, it's become a new norm for the region, but the approach is actually "quite novel," explained Cooper.

The FAA has signed off on three separate rotation tests and the first two have proved relatively successful in guaranteeing quieter nights.

So would the agency think outside the box in approving a permanent rotation?

"That's the end game," said Cooper, who just retired from his job as the Federal Aviation Administration's regional administrator for the Great Lakes Region, which includes eight states.

O'Hare already has a Fly Quiet program at night intended to appease homeowners by using designated runways.

"It has served a purpose," Cooper said in a recent exit interview. But "traffic changes and new runways get built and get closed so obviously Fly Quiet, as it has existed, is obsolete."

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The current rotation will last 12 weeks and is an attempt to evenly distribute the din of airplanes.

"We are attempting to create a regional approach to better manage noise by providing predictable periods of sound relief," Mount Prospect Mayor and O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission Chairwoman Arlene Juracek said.

But the rotation didn't please everyone when O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission members approved it in June.

Out of the roster is diagonal Runway 15/33, which will be retired in spring 2018 as O'Hare shifts to a parallel, east-west flight system. That irks residents of suburbs such as Park Ridge who dread more flights over homes.

"Test three will unnecessarily impact communities by not making use of Runway 15/33, one of the longest runways at the airport," said Dan Dwyer, a member of the Fair Allocation in Runways group.

Other communities such as Des Plaines objected to the inclusion of another diagonal runway that will cause sleepless nights for some neighborhoods. But west of O'Hare, residents in Bensenville and Wood Dale who've endured an onslaught of planes from the emerging parallel configuration were grateful for any respite the rotation promised.


The rotation tests will give the Chicago Department of Aviation "meaningful data to work with the noise commission to develop whatever the new Fly Quiet is and it may be some sort of rotation plan," Cooper said.

The FAA is in the midst of a massive analysis of the existing 65-decibel standard used for determining who gets funding for soundproofing.

"We are doing a scientific study that measures the annoyance of noise and how it affects various aspects of life. That's not easy to do," Cooper said.

"We may find the 65-decibel standard is the best available standard we have or we may find it's not the right thing and we need to take it a different way. It might find a different way to assess how we address noise impacts ... it will not make noise go away."

Another challenge for the FAA and aviation industry, Cooper explained, is switching to a satellite-guided system of air traffic control dubbed NextGen, instead of radar-based.

NextGen will be complete by the decade's end and should speed up operations at airports. However, flight paths into O'Hare might not change significantly, Cooper said.

That's because the location of the second busiest airport in the U.S. dictates that "you have to line (arrivals) up, far out and keep that spacing," he explained. "There won't be any kind of spaghetti bowl of arrival patterns."

There's been a push to keep Runway 15/33 alive from some lawmakers and FAIR.

But the FAA's approval of the O'Hare modernization plan that calls for six parallel runways is etched in stone, Cooper said.

"Our analysis shows ... it creates the most efficient airport," he said.

One more thing

Cooper, a civil engineer, started his career 41 years ago. The Schaumburg resident has weathered former President Ronald Reagan's 1981 firing of air traffic controllers, 9/11 and a more recent crisis that occurred when a contract employee sabotaged the Chicago Center air traffic control facility in 2014 in Aurora.

"You had a significant aircraft facility fully operational at one moment and totally unoperational the next moment," he said.

Got an opinion on O'Hare or other transportation issues? Drop me an email at

Ride on and rock on

Metra regulators dreading close encounters with rockers and music fans heading to Lollapalooza should know the railroad will add extra trains and capacity Thursday through Saturday. Schedules will be adjusted for the event. The CTA is also ramping up transit service. For more information, go to

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